Looking for Olympic Winners, in the Stock Market

As the Olympic Flame is set to burn brightly over the London Games, investors may want to consider carrying a torch for a certain group of stocks -- at least until the ceremonial blaze is extinguished next month.

Sometimes, the most obvious choice is the best choice in these exercises, but there are some surprising, non-sports-related stocks that have delivered consistent, medal-winning returns for investors during the Olympics.

Nike (NYSE:NKE), the world’s biggest sporting goods company, is aptly named for the Greek goddess of victory. The sports apparel giant has led investors to great fortune indeed during the Summer Games -- after all, the company’s trademark swoosh is more ubiquitous on global telecasts than the Olympic theme or medal ceremonies.

“It’s always beneficial to Nike,” says Eric Boyce, portfolio manager at Austin, Texas-based Hester Capital Management.  “I think it’s tangible, you get a lot of people in front of TV and computer screens watching replays, a lot of viewership and click-through opportunities where people are looking through products manufactured by Nike.”

The sporting goods company went public in December of 1980 -- the same year as the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid’s Winter Olympics and the US-led boycott of the Moscow Summer Games. Nike’s track record as a public company through seven Olympiad is one that even Carl Lewis or Usain Bolt would envy. Nike shares have posted gains from the opening ceremony through the closing extravaganza in six out of seven Summer Games.

Bespoke Investment Group crunched the data for the FOX Business Network and found that Nike has posted an average gain of 7% while the Olympic Flame burns over the host city. The biggest return was 19% during the 1984 Los Angeles Games. According to Bespoke, even the dot com implosion in 2000 didn’t stop Nike from posting a positive return of 6% for the Sydney Olympics, while the S&P 500 fell 2.5% during that time (the first drop for the benchmark index during the Summer Games since Montreal in 1976).

Nike’s Olympic Record 1984 LA:  +19.1% 1988 Seoul +4.0% 1992 Barcelona +6.5% 1996 Atlanta +7.6% 2000 Sydney +6.1% 2004 Athens +9.2% 2008 Beijing -2.9% Avg. Gain +7.1%Source:  Bespoke Investment Group

In fact, it took a “sell China’s growth story” mentality combined with a recession that was spiraling into a full blown global financial crisis to break the company’s unbeaten streak at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Nike’s 3% decline was the first time the stock had underperformed the S&P (-0.9% for the Games) during an Olympics.

Even then, Nike’s stock advanced 4.6% while the S&P 500 slid 2.9% over the following month after those Games; before getting dragged down as the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the failed TARP bank bailout plan vote in Congress stalled the economy and sent equity markets into a vicious tailspin.

Rival Under Armour (NYSE:UA) had a similar experience in the Beijing Olympics, the upstart athletic apparel maker’s first Summer Games as a public company. It fell 3.6% while the Olympic Flame burned, then surged 17.7% the ensuing month before sliding with the rest of the market.

Frequently, market watchers talk about the dichotomy of a great company versus a great stock. Boyce said that’s the case with Nike. The fund manager said his firm will be a Nike stock spectator during these Games after dumping their entire 85,000 share stake at $110 each during the first quarter as the stock rallied to record highs (it peaked at $114.81 on May 2).

Boyce still likes the sports gear maker, but thinks it is overvalued given current conditions.

“We’re looking for a more attractive price—a share price in the mid-80s.” Boyce said he was watching the stock when it fell to that level last month, but it never hit their sweet spot and it moved back up rapidly.

Boyce said he wouldn’t pay up for the stock due to concerns about the macro environment: “The long-term glide path for Nike is optimistic, (but) it’s not the black and white road map we saw before. They’ve got challenges from areas they didn’t have before, a stronger dollar and a China slowdown.”

Nike’s international sales accounted for 58% of its revenue in fiscal 2012 which ended last month. Nike reported its fiscal 4Q earnings dropped versus the prior year and revenue fell short of estimates due to weakness in Europe and Asia. Profit margins shrank due to higher costs and a stronger dollar.

Meanwhile, those closest to the cash register say the marketing for Nike may be great but the Olympic-effect on retail sales is muted.

“We’ll get some play off it, but it’s not as crazy as everyone thinks. It’s basically (selling) t-shirts” says Mitchell Modell, CEO of New York-based Modell’s Sporting Goods, which claims to be the nation’s oldest family-owned and operated sporting goods chain.

Modell, who oversees the privately-held chain of 150 stores operating in 10 states, adds, “For the Olympics, people are tuned into it, but we don’t see residual sales from it.  It’s not like the World Cup.  The World Cup is crazy.”

Matt Powell, an analyst who tracks Nike and its peers for SportsOneSource, is also skeptical of a Summer Games sales boost, “In all my years covering the industry, I’ve never seen the Olympics directly create a boost in business. I do not believe that consumers have a visceral response to the events.”

While watching the games may not inspire people to start pole vaulting, Powell says it is the new technology that companies such as Nike release around the Games that may juice revenue:  “What does drive sales are new product introductions that brands release during the Olympics. New products are the driver, not the events. The marketing is more about brand building than selling products.”

The analyst points to Nike’s Flywire and Lunar gear in 2008 as prime examples which boosted Nike’s revenue around the Olympics that year. Powell thinks Nike will also get a boost from its new Flyknit technology being released around this summer’s London Games.

Boyce says while the Olympics are a showcase for the new wares, he doesn’t think the bullish effects are long-lasting.  “It’s not a forever thing, my sense is it gives {Nike} opportunities to showcase on the apparel side -- how they look, and for footwear there’s lots of talk about technological advancements, and you wind up having potential athlete endorsers and spokespeople out of it.”

Nike isn’t the only past winner with a golden pedigree. Jason Goepfert of Sentimentrader.com compiled a list of hardware-worthy stocks for FOX Business. He looked at stocks within the S&P 500 that have been public for at least the last four Summer Games and have posted gains in each of those Olympics (from Opening Ceremony through the Closing Ceremony).

There were just nine stocks that met the criteria and the surprising list of winners does not include a single other sporting goods play or even any of the major sponsors who spend millions to keep their logo in front of billions of viewers.

Data storage company EMC (NYSE:EMC) is atop the medal stand with an average return of 7.3% during the past four Summer Games. For-profit education company Apollo Group (NASDAQ:APOL) won silver with an average 4.6% gain and Cardinal Health (NYSE:CAH) won the bronze with a 3.6% average increase.

Honorable mention goes to video game publisher Electronic Arts (NYSE:EA), which does publish sports titles for armchair athletes. EA was fourth after scoring an average gain of 3.5%.

Eddie the Eagle awards go to Baxter International (NYSE:BAX), with -2.8% average, and Edison International (NYSE:EIX), with a -1.2% average and down in all four Games.